Would you live in a Google house?

Google is the undisputed champ when it comes to internet advertising. There's no shortage of companies on the web pursuing the same model. Obviously, not every product can be offered for free and funded with advertising, at some point somebody has to pay for the products being advertised in order for there to be any money to buy advertising with. Google's great insight has been the ability to specifically target advertising towards what people are looking for at the time. This advertising is much more valuable to both consumers and advertisers and it has enabled Google to make a plethora of excellent services available for free. How far could this model be taken though?

Could it be extended to housing? Affordable housing is difficult to find in many major metropolitan areas. Suppose apartment buildings started adding screens inside the apartments that display advertisements in exchange for a lower rent. I know what you're thinking: it's outrageous and nobody would willingly put a screen that displays advertisements in their home. Of course the television provides entertainment in exchange for viewing ads. Clearly people have shown they're willing to trade their attention in small slices when they get something in return. I think the only question is how much you would have to give before an in-home billboard becomes an attractive proposition.

With a little extra technology this system could provide additional value for the consumer as well as the advertisers. Let's say you belong to discount club at your local supermarket. They're probably already tracking what you purchase and it would be trivial to link up your data at the store with your home billboard system. In my experience most purchases fall into some sort of a pattern, there are items you buy every week, some every other week or on some other frequency as they run out. Over time the store could easily pick up on the patterns in your purchases.

Surely, this information is already shared with advertisers in one way or another. However, the advertisers' ability to act on this information is limited by current media. How much would it be worth to them to get an ad for, say, ketchup into just the homes of people who are about to buy ketchup?

With all this information floating around between your home and the grocery store, it would be exceptionally easy to make up your shopping list. If the store knows what you're running out of they could add it to the list. In this case it would be a snap to run down the list of things you usually buy, evaluate what you might be running out of, and add anything new you might want to get. No doubt, someone's already working on some clever machine learning algorithms to analyze your purchases and suggest related products you might want to buy.

As more stores start to incorporate handheld scanners there's no reason you couldn't use one to scan your discount card and have it download your grocery list. It could check items off your list and even alert you if you get to the register without picking up something you meant to buy. (Can you tell this happens to me all the time?) The database the scanner is accessing knows what items the store has on sale. It could alert you if there's a coupon for something on your list or even if there's a similar item on sale at a lower price.

At this point it's starting to sound like something people might actually pay for, rather than something that should be given away for free in exchange for some advertising, and this is just an example from one industry.

People seem to hate advertising most when it's irrelevant. There doesn't seem to be quite so much resistance to advertising that is a.) unobtrusive and b.) related to something the viewer wants to buy. The in-home billboard could have a strong advantage in the relevance category with the right source of information. Making the sign sufficiently unobtrusive would mean striking a careful balance between not annoying the person who has to live with it and making it worthwhile for advertisers to spend money on it. I'd imagine that something like a poster-sized e-ink screen (or anything not back-lit) could fit the bill.

Between the conveniences it could create and maybe a couple hundred dollars off of the monthly rent, I think targeted in-home advertising could be an attractive proposition for some. What would it take for you to live in a house with a personalized billboard?

Originally published 2010-03-08 12:29:57